Afraid of the Holy. Everything is Holy Now.

Sermon  by the Rev. Dr.  Wayne Arnason


READING FROM AN ANCIENT SOURCE: Exodus 3-4 Good News Translation (GNT)

3 One day while Moses was taking care of the sheep and goats of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he led the flock across the desert and came to Sinai, the holy mountain. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him as a flame coming from the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up. “This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.”

When the Lord saw that Moses was coming closer, he called to him from the middle of the bush and said, “Moses! Moses!”

He answered, “Yes, here I am.”

God said, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” So Moses covered his face, because he was afraid to look at God.




from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

“Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block.  The Chinese say that we live in a world of the ten thousand things.  Each of the ten thousand things cries out to us precisely nothing.

God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves.  I wish I could find one.  Martin Buber says: ” The crisis of all primitive mankind comes with the discovery of that which is fundamentally not-holy, the a-sacramental, which withstands the methods, and which has no ‘hour’, a province which steadily enlarges itself.”  Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems not-holy.  We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of sacred streams.  We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism.  Silence is not our heritage but our destiny; we live where we want to live.”




The story of Moses and the burning bush is deeply rooted in our own and in the western psyche as a paradigm of encountering the holy. When Moses came upon that burning bush that was not consumed, he was both attracted to this sight and terrified by it. His first reaction was amazement and curiosity. Could he trust his own eyes! Was this really happening? There must be a rational explanation! Maybe the bush was made of some kind of very hard wood and was just burning slowly? But how could it burn so hot and so bright, without crumbling into ash?

Then as Moses approached the bush, two things happened at the same time. He concluded that this was indeed happening, that it must be some kind of miracle that contravened the laws of nature, and just as he was taking this in, a voice spoke to him out from the burning bush.

“Do not come closer! Take off your shoes! For the ground upon which you walk is holy ground!”

And it was then, that Moses’ curiosity changed to terror. For this was not just an unusual bush any more. It was an encounter with something else, something other, maybe something sacred, and Moses hid his face in fear, but he also took off his shoes in respect.

Moses’ response to the burning bush can serve as both a guide for us in any search to understand the holy, but it can also be a detour, that can throw us off track. The emotions of attraction and fear are involved every time we encounter the holy, but if it requires a burning bush experience to be able to say that we know what the holy looks like, we could live a long time without ever being able to say that we have experienced something holy.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have to confess to you that I have been afraid of the holy!! I’ve been afraid of it because I always get into trouble when I talk about it.  In congregations like ours, I know that if I try to talk about the holy I’ll get back questions like:  “ So what do you mean by this word “holy”? Who decides what gets to be called holy? Isn’t it true that one culture’s holy shrines can be a neighboring culture’s demonic lairs? I thought we didn’t believe in the holy?  ?”

All good questions…..all good reasons to be afraid of the holy, or at least, afraid of conversation about “the holy”.  A UU minister has two tasks when it comes to opening up any conversation about the holy: first, we have to speak from the wisdom of the lineage, from what our religious tradition has learned and has taught about the holy, and then, and perhaps more importantly, we also have to speak from our own original and unique experience of holiness. We have to trust in what we ourselves know.

So I’m going to try to do both of those today, but let me begin first with the wisdom of our lineage and our tradition. Because Unitarian Universalist congregations are known for their openness to the wisdom of the world’s religious traditions, and don’t require a doctrinal belief system held in common, a frequent question we get asked is this:  “So, what’s at the center for your church?  If it isn’t a church about Jesus, then what is it about? “ It’s true that most of the great world faiths can point to a time in history where they had a revelation they believe to be holy, that has been summarized in teachings that represents their center. Can Unitarian Universalism do the same?

Over the past few decades, this question has been taken up by the President of our Association of congregations, by our Commission on Appraisal, and by hundreds of ministers in many more hundreds of sermons. I have come to believe that the search for a vibrant theological center in Unitarian Universalism has to focus around two different answers.  The first answer is one that I’ve always told to newcomers to our congregations: the center of our faith tradition is found in a community of conversation about the holy. In other words, because we invite the wisdom of the world’s faiths, and because we respect the sanctity of the individual conscience, and because we believe that revelation about what is holy is never sealed, we believe that there is truth available in everyone’s experience of the holy and even more truth when that experience is shared, shared in conversation, in debate, and through the arts. At the center of Unitarian Universalism is a conversation.

There’s also a faith at that center, and it’s a faith in humanity itself, a faith in our capacity to live from the deepest insights and convictions we know. To be able to have a conversation about the holy in your own life, there has to be this second answer to the question about what we find at the center of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

Behind and within each of the participants in any conversation about what is holy, there is an individual human experience.  The first two words of the list of sources for our living tradition that we honor in our statement of Purposes and Principles are the words “Direct Experience”. The full sentence describing that first source of our faith reads:

“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit, and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

That is the second answer that you will hear more about today when I talk some more about my own personal experience of the holy. There is much in the evolution of our theological history in the past two hundred years that reminds us why we have these two answers to this important question about our theological center. Our Unitarian and Universalist 19th century forebears were among the first Christians to understand that demonizing and dismissing other religions as heathens or as primitive faiths was a false arrogance. We were among the first Christians to welcome engagement with world religions and with the teachings of science as they could illuminate religious questions. In the 20th century, we faced the question of whether we would continue to maintain an exclusively Christian identity for our religious community, or whether we would embrace the free thinkers, the humanists, the atheists, and later the earth-centered believers among us. What evolved was an image of a big tent religion that could host a lively conversation about the holy under its sheltering roof. This picture of who we are has become more and more compelling to us in the 21st century.

Even as we embraced that image, our faith tradition was being caught up in a broader cultural trend in the west that was so vividly described in the reading that we heard earlier from Annie Dillard, a cultural trend that she sums up in a sentence: “Now that we are not primitive, the whole world seems not-holy”.  The de-sacralization of the the world, the movement away from seeing the world itself as holy, has happened because we know it too well, because we have all studied biology and cosmology, because we understand anthropology and psychology, because we are so sophisticated.

This is a movement that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion has aided and abetted. We have challenged the line that has been drawn between the sacred and the secular, between the natural and the divine, because it is a line that has been exploited by church and state alike to hold power and abuse authority, because it is a line that has been invoked to ridicule and dismiss the insights of the sciences and the arts.

Flowing beneath our two hundred years of distinct existence in America as a liberal faith tradition that has challenged the power of the other religious traditions to define what is holy and sacred for us, there has been a river of experience, an individual and collective experience of the holy, that has motivated us to gather in religious communities and sustain our ways of being religious. That underground river of experience broke through dry ground and overflowed the banks of old tradition during the flowering of Transcendentalism in New England, when the Unitarian movement gave birth and voice to the insights of Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Fuller, Parker, Ripley, and so many others who saw the holy everywhere they looked, and not just within the walls of the church. They proclaimed an original relationship with the universe. They proclaimed the authority of the poet, the naturalist, and the philosopher, alongside that of the prophet, the priest and the saint, declaring in Emerson’s words that “all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”

It is this experience of the holy that calls to us and claims a place at the


theological center of our faith. Listen now to the voice of another artist, a contrasting voice to the despair and cynicism we heard from Annie Dillard, the Unitarian Universalist singer songwriter Peter Mayer.


SONG: PETER MAYER’S Everything is Holy Now [Lyrics]



Many Unitarian Universalists who hear that song for the first time tell me they have an  “aha” moment—that their spirit answers it and says “yes, yes, yes—that’s how I feel too!”  That’s not surprising because “Everything is holy now” is a very Transcendentalist song.  Ralph Waldo Emerson and other “transcendentalists” believed that the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world and contains what the world contains—that divinity is in every living thing—that in essence, everything is holy – now.

This belief was not at all unique to 19th century Unitarians – several of them realized it was well known to Eastern traditions — that the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto faiths in different ways are teaching that everything sentient being and material object is a part of the sacredness of life and that our sense of separateness from what is holy is really an illusion.

I am a lifelong and fourth generation Unitarian Universalist, but for fifty years I have also had a Buddhist spiritual practice. There is no tension in this dual religious identity for me. Because our tradition has no clearly prescribed spiritual disciplines, but encourages exploration of options for spiritual practice from the world’s faiths and from secular sources, I have been comfortable going where my personal experience beckoned me to search for the holy.  Where I have found it is in a different kind of burning bush experience, those rare times in meditative practices or in extreme experiences where the separate self that we take for granted and treasure so much burns away for a short time, and yet is not consumed.  When the fire stops, it’s still there – but because you’ve watched it dissolve into flames, it’s not that important any more.

The few times that I’ve had an experience like that, it’s been exactly as described in the story of Moses, an experience of both attraction and fear, that leads to awe and wonder and ultimately respect. You take off your shoes, and you never want to put them on again. So when I speak of the Holy, part of what I mean has resulted from experiences I’ve had, and I’m sure you have had, that evoke in us a sense of awe and wonder.  The most articulate Christian theologian to write about the Holy was Rudolf Otto, who describes it in his elaborate Germanic way in these words :

“The Holy is the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion. ‘It is to be found:  ‘in sudden ebullitions of personal piety, … in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies . . .’It may [be] peaceful and: ‘come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.’ or faster moving—it may emerge from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions’ and leading to: ‘the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy…”[1]

Maybe that’s why we should be afraid of the Holy—not because its hard to talk about, but because in addition to it coming to us in moments of peaceful inspiration in a church liturgy, or in the flowering dogwoods and the yellow finches, the Holy can come to us like a lighting bolt that feels like it might kill you.  The Holy can sing her song to us in a questioning child’s face, or in a red-winged bird, as Peter Mayer suggests, or the Holy may grab our heart and lungs with an iron fist and leave us gasping for breath until we’re shaking and exhausted.  It’s no wonder we’re afraid of the Holy. It’s sneaky.

That’s why, I believe, Unitarian Universalists have been more inclined to have a conversation about the Holy—than to purposefully and intentionally practice it.  We have the mind-strength to engage with one another intellectually about the holy.  We can argue about it, debate it, we can read Otto’s book—but the real work of walking with the Holy—well, we don’t have the tools to know how to do that yet.

What’s stopping us from intentionally developing a discipline of walking with the Holy?  Well, fear, is certainly one piece of it.  Engaging with the Holy is like suddenly finding yourself in a different landscape.  Everything looks the same—and yet, there is a quality of being—a sense of awe and a diminishment of the protected self—that is unnerving.  It doesn’t always feel good.  Time, perhaps, is another reason we flee from direct encounters with the Holy.  We never have enough time to attend to our “secular” day-to-day life, much less, our “spiritual life.”  Yet, somehow, we make time, when a loved one is on her deathbed, and we realize that the time we spend there—in the hospital—or by the bedside—is, in fact, Holy time.  We were unprepared for it spiritually, but somehow we know that this is time we will never have again.

Or — We may seek to catch a glimpse of the holy while walking in the woods, but do we take the time to prepare ourselves for that glimpse?  How much do we teach and how much are we open to personal devotional practice, to the five finger exercises that help make you ready to play when an unexpected invitation to make music with the holy comes our way.

So – How was your character shaped by your experience of the holy this week?   How did that experience make you better able to live a life of integrity, service and joy?

I admit that some days I am like Annie Dillard and “each of the ten thousand things cries out to (me) precisely nothing.”  Of course, Annie is better known for her advice about what to do in this stuck moment, whether it is in the city or in the woods. She writes: “At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.”

It takes a greater spiritual being than I will ever be to always know in my bones that everything is Holy now, but I do know that I remember this truth much more frequently and have stopped being afraid of the holy because of all the reminders that I have placed throughout my days, like notes on the refrigerator calendar. I remember to sit on my meditation cushion.  I remember to be aware of my boredom and my anger and not let it manage me.  I remember to notice and honor beauty.  I remember to tell the people I love that I love them. I remember to come to church…. Even though I’m retired and don’t have to any more!! Whether I like the sermon or the preacher that day…whether the acoustics during coffee hour are bad or whether I’m sleepy and lazy on Sunday morning. I know because I trust that there will be somewhere in the liturgy or the sermon or the coffee hour or the classes, a conversation about the holy. I come because I trust that if I am paying attention and listening and looking, I may even have an encounter with the Holy in fresh and surprising ways.  This is a truth, and these are the practices in which I have come to place my trust — and lose my fear.

May it be so.


[1] Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy, pg. 12-13

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *